Naples writer’s novel The Lost Apothecary: unfaithful husbands
A modern-day woman, betrayed by her unfaithful husband, finds the means to flee America to England while pondering her next move. But in 18th-century London, a woman trapped in a bad marriage has fewer options, so she may turn to a sympathetic apothecary for a discreet vial of poison.
These are the parallel worlds of “The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner, who comes to Naples on Thursday November 3 to speak in the series Author Spotlight for the Library Friends of Collier County.
The series is the latest venture from Friends, the non-profit organization raising funds to complete the Collier County Public Library system. The other conference featuring a novelist who writes historical fiction is Asha Lemmieauthor of “Fifty Words for the Rain”, in the spring.
As for Penner, she literally grew up in a log cabin in rural Kansas. She now lives on the coast in St. Petersburg. Armed with a degree in finance, she spent 13 years in corporate America before quitting her day job and becoming a full-time writer.
She struck gold with her debut novel, “The Lost Apothecary,” combining feminism, social commentary, mystery and magic with a cast of memorable female characters. Her next novel, ‘The London Séance Society’, due out in April, follows similar themes.
Inspiration for the main character of Sarah Penner’s latest book
Here is a conversation with Penner, ahead of his Nov. 3 conference in Naples.
Naples Daily News: “The Lost Apothecary” has a rather harsh theme of revenge against cheating men! What’s the inspiration for the apothecary being a murderer – is there an actual incident of a woman in London or another city dispensing poisons like this?
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Sarah Penner: The best-known poisoner was Giulia Tofana, who lived in Rome in the 17th century. She sold a poisonous tincture known as Aqua Tofana – which contained deadly amounts of arsenic – to women wanting to kill their abusive spouses. Before being executed, she admitted to helping hundreds of women kill their husbands.
I am convinced that before the advent of forensic toxicology in the 1850s, homicides by poisoning were commonplace. In other words, I don’t think the sinister work of women like Giulia Tofana, or the apothecary in my story, was really that unusual. For those interested in learning more, two books on the subject include “The Secret Poisoner” by Linda Stratmann and “Poisoned Lives” by Katherine Watson.
NDN: Which authors or books have influenced your desire to write and your style of writing?
SP: I have been inspired by countless authors. I love Fiona Davis’ use of dual timelines and her “commercial” narrative style, which means her historical fiction is accessible to a wide audience without feeling tense or wordy. I also love Ira Levin’s prose, namely how he was able to convey sensory detail with just a few words. Some of my favorite early historical fiction were written by Ken Follett, Philippa Gregory, and Elizabeth Kostova. I also love Erin Morgenstern’s writing style as seen in “The Night Circus”, including her use of the passive voice and second-person perspective.
Inspired by rule breakers in the literary world
I’ve always admired rule breakers, especially in this industry. Art and rules don’t mix, do they? I have just written an essay on this exact topic, which can be found at https://writerunboxed.com/2022/08/02/a-writers-guide-to-breaking-the-rules/.
NDN: In the acknowledgments of your novel, you thank Fiona Davis, who is also coming to Naples soon, for the Friends of the Library Nick Linn Series. What is your relationship with Fiona?
SP: What a fun question! I mentioned above that I love Fiona’s writing style. I was a reader and fan long before I considered her a friend.
When I went looking for a literary agent years ago, I started by looking for Fiona’s agent. Lo and behold, I finally signed with the same agent! Fiona and I now chat occasionally on Zoom, and we support each other’s books – which means I get a quick peek at everything she’s been working on! Quite the advantage.
NDN: Your book alludes to the ultimate fate of the poisoner, Nella. Are you considering another book about her, or about her young protege Eliza? Or, for that matter, about Caroline, the current protagonist?
SP: I don’t want to divulge any spoilers, but I do plan to write a sequel to “The Lost Apothecary” that will reveal more about Eliza’s story and offer some clues to Nella’s eventual fate. I don’t plan to write anything more from Caroline’s point of view. His story is complete for me.
Will we ever see “The Lost Apothecary” on TV?
NDN: I read that your book is in development for a television series. What can you tell us?
PS: The truth is that Hollywood keeps us far away, us authors. What I do know is this: Fox Entertainment picked up the film/TV rights last year and assigned a writer and showrunner. The writer has been working on the pilot script for a while, and I’m looking forward to a first look!
NDN: Are there crossover characters or themes from “The Lost Apothecary” in “The London Séance Society”, your new book due out in the spring?
PS: There are absolutely cross themes! My brand is very feminist, and I love writing dark twists and cliffhangers. Like “The Lost Apothecary”, my second book, “The London Session Society” has an element of magical realism – in this case, it’s ghosts!
“The London Séance Society” is about a female spiritualist from upper Victorian London who conjures up the spirits of murder victims to determine the identities of their killers. She is called to a high-profile murder case in London, where, along with her understudy, the two women infiltrate an exclusive male-only establishment known as the London Séance Society. It’s a gothic whodunit full of surprises, revenge and, of course, a sensual session or two. I can’t wait for readers to fall in love with the story.
Flagship events by Friends of the Library authors
What: Author Conferences that are a fundraiser by the Friends of Collier County Library
Where: Blackburn Hall at the Sugden Community Theater, 701 Fifth Ave. S., Napoli
When: Sarah Penner, Thursday, November 3 at 2 p.m., followed by a book signing; Asha Lemmie, Saturday, April 1, at 10 a.m., followed by a book signing
Cost: $48 for each lecture for current members of the Friends of the Collier County Library; $58 for non-members. All seating is general admission, and “reserved” seating will not be permitted. Friends memberships start at $30/year and offer access and discounts to many other programs.